Friday, March 6, 2015

I am a person who will buy a Steam Machine

Yesterday Valve lit up their Steam Machine store page, offering previews of the upcoming Steam-based gaming consoles. (All "available November 2015".) It's a somewhat preposterous range of hardware -- sub-$500 boxes up to $5000.

I am not and never have been a connoisseur of graphic-card model numbers. ("More digits is better, right?") Come November, I'm going to have to browse a lot of tech-rag web pages to figure out which way is up.

I did a little of that browsing today. Naturally it's all handwaving at this point, and this post will only throw more hands in the air. But here are the first two articles I found:

You can read the articles if you want, but the headlines sum it up. Either the Steam Machine is a rising force in the console market, or it's a laughable dead end. Journalism!

I can't speak to the market appeal of these things. But I was excited by the original Steam Machine announcement of 2013, and I still expect to buy one this fall. Why? Many factors converging.

I didn't grow up a console gamer, but I was a console gamer from 1997-ish to 2010-ish. That is, roughly the PS2 and PS3 generations. But the genres I enjoy -- action-adventure stuff -- have been tailing off for years, and have almost never been console-exclusive.

Meanwhile, the interesting indie games are resolutely Steam-focussed. (When they can get into Big Distribution at all, but that's a separate argument.)

My Mac isn't working out as a game machine. Some games turn up on MacOS, some don't, some do but it takes too long. My iMac's graphics capabilities are merely adequate these days.

And yet I don't want a Windows box. I'd have to pay attention to it. Even the modern auto-updating OS models are too much work for gaming hardware. The console promise is "I will never not work or do anything surprising." General-purpose PCs can't achieve that.

Look, I never wanted my work machine to be my gaming machine anyhow. Separation of domains! I don't want my game service to spy on my web browsing or my email stream. If Steam gets compromised that shouldn't affect the box I do work on.

Sony can bite me. They're a bunch of pigboinkers, and they will never stop screwing up on customer security. I'm done with Playstations.

Xbox can bite me. Oh, I know, it's cool that Microsoft is now the struggling underdog. I even root for them sometimes. But not enough to buy into their tightly-gripped entertainment ecosystem. (Same goes for their Office ecosystem.) You just know that the pigboinkery is lurking in the middle-managers' offices... waiting.

Nintendo has nothing I want. Sorry. I played some Wii games back in the day (hi @mrsambarlow), but they ran out.

Conclusion: the combination of console-simplicity, Steam's library, and not having molested porkflesh in my presence puts the Steam Machine high on my list.

And now, the risks!

Too many models. If the customers don't want your product, they won't want twelve variants of your product twelve times as much. Steam's store page is a nightmare. I really hope that one of those models bubbles to the top as "here, just buy this one".

Linux gaming might fail yet again for the thousandth time. The idea of "Steam's whole library on SteamOS" is still a hope, not a promise. I would love to see Linux (even just SteamOS's Linux instance) become a first-rank target for new Steam games, as Windows is today. I will happily spend a few hundred dollars in that hope. But then I'll have to sit back and see if it happens.

Valve might boink a pig. Right now they have the trust of a large segment of gamerdom. They could do something awful and lose that.

The Last Guardian. You never know. It might ship.

Finally, the factors that I don't care about...

Price. It is true that Steam consoles will cost more than the current Xbox/PS4 deals. It is as yet unclear what the "average" or even "cheapest acceptable" Steam Machine will cost. I realize that lots of people will be swayed by price. (Nor will Steam be a prestige-brand thing like Apple has going.) But me, I am okay with paying a two- or three-hundred dollar premium for my concerns.

Linux gaming per se. It's great if Steam makes Linux take off, but that's not something I'm pushing for.

Apple is just as bad as Sony or Microsoft! Yeah fine. I respect the parallelism of your position, but that doesn't mean it's my position. You know perfectly well that if Apple enters the (supra-mobile) console race I'm going to get their box anyway.

Gamers who build their own fancy rigs will pooh-pooh it. Nobody builds expensive Windows gaming rigs. You live in a bubble. (I live in a different bubble. Actually I once built an expensive Windows gaming rig, but it was a huge waste of time and money.) The point is, consoles are already a way bigger market than the kind of gamer who will compare motherboards and graphics cards. That's the market that Steam is aiming at.

VR headsets. Investment capital in search of a problem.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

namekuseijin (Mar 6, 2015 at 9:45 PM):

I'm actually fed up with mainstream games. Just too old for the thing, same old moves and promises never quite fullfilled. Big productions that either take ages in the making and are just as uninspiring as anything else or the formulaic annual rehash.

My ps4 sits there gathering dust while I play mobiles games or IF.

Andrew Plotkin (Mar 7, 2015 at 1:09 AM):

You don't actually have to take every opportunity to show off how much you dislike things.

namekuseijin (Mar 7, 2015 at 8:52 AM):

while indeed I have a tendency to whine about the darker side of things, I was actually kinda agreeing with you there about the PS4. It's still to early, but aside from a racer plagued by bugs on release that turned out to eventually be a very impressive arcade racer, most of my joy so far has come from indie title such as The Swapper, Dust, Transistor, etc. Big releases as inFamous or AC Unity are bigger, badder rehashes of just the same. I hope to eventually see a full fledged LOTR game using Shadow of Mordor engine and ideas...

Like I said, mobile and IF can go where console fare usually can't and that brings a smile to my face

Raulfiorito (Mar 8, 2015 at 10:40 AM):

You have no idea what are you talking about. Sell that useless iMac. Build your own PC, is better than this upcoming Steam Machine, is the fucking same thing cheaper. Even you can install that SteamOS in any existent PC. If you spend money make it worth, learn what you paid can do for you. Steam will be fall and you are going to live to see it. You can read this, is a pretty good article about the future of this new useless "good looking" expensive box.

Andrew Plotkin (Mar 8, 2015 at 7:03 PM):

Now that is an interesting reply. Interesting in how you present yourself, I mean.

You don't care how I work or what I want. (The iMac is my work machine, I said that up top.) You want to exist in a world where everybody loves building hardware from the ground up. Sadly, reality has cut you off at the knees -- plenty of people want a zero-effort, zero-maintenance solution. But that hurts you in your soul! So you have to come here and yell at me.

I'm not sure whether you honestly think that you're making an argument, or if you just need to shout to reassure yourself that you're right.

(I thought maybe my link had been picked up by a nest of self-righteous Linux-haters out there who were using it for identity-politics whack-a-mole. Can't find such a thing, though. Small favors.)

As for the article you link: it doesn't exactly support your proposition that "Steam will fall", does it? I mean, yes: Steam will fall, Sony will fall, Apple will fall. The sun will go out and Javascript will eventually be replaced. But not before November.

William (Mar 26, 2015 at 10:08 PM):

I'm cautiously optimistic about Steam Machines as well. (Though I hope they hit a mark with their Vive headset as well ;) )

However I don't quite understand why a rather accomplished programmer like yourself would be prepared to pay some significant markup price just to avoid sticking a card in some slot, or screwing in a motherboard. Yeah, a zero-hassle solution has an honest market, but I wouldn't have suspected it would be among the technically inclined. The task is honestly a fucking trivial, one-off affair.

still, I guess its nice to support their platform if the price difference is not a big deal to you..

Andrew Plotkin (Mar 27, 2015 at 5:32 PM):

That's okay! It's true whether you understand it or not. :)

One of the console advantages is reducing fragmentation. Obviously the way Steam is setting this up, fragmentation is inevitable. But I suspect that if SteamOS is successful at all, it will be on the back of a single hardware spec that becomes the "expected" Steam Machine. Everything else will be imitating that or taking its chances. And building one's own system is definitely taking one's chances.

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